When Patrick Reed's past and present merge, a question of what's fair game
When the polite applause stopped Sunday evening, it wasn’t Patrick Reed’s gritty finish that inspired headlines and tweets in the hours following his victory. No, more than any major champion in recent memory, the stories that surrounded Reed’s win moved remarkably quickly toward the unflattering mistakes and the personal crises of his pre-green jacket life. In short, the minute he was putting his arms in the sleeves of the coat, many were pointing out all the reasons he didn’t quite fit the suit.
And yet that seems just fine with Reed, who is quick to dismiss the questions of a life conflicted and of conflict, of family union and familial strife. “I mean, I'm just out here to play golf and try to win golf tournaments,” he said flatly from the podium that night.
Still, that answer was no match for the growing media and public sentiment that was quick to look behind Reed’s facade, sorting through his past uncertainties with a certainty that nowadays seems as essential to journalism as a notebook used to be. It’s new and awkward territory for a game whose champions, and its image as a whole, have largely remained sweet confections and comfortably predictable.
While Reed’s is not the typical backstory golf likes to tell, this highly personal exegesis seemed bigger than the moment or the man before the moment even happened, before the man could have his say. It was telling that the most popular story on GolfDigest.com throughout its weekend of Masters coverage was Ryan Herrington’s reminder piece of Reed’s twisty personal history. Asking simply but even-handedly if we should hold Reed’s past against him, the piece was posted hours before he teed off in the final round yet remained the most read story long after he had holed his final putt.
Even more dramatically, the most shared story on Golf.com in its history was Alan Shipnuck’s trip inside Reed’s estranged family’s melancholy Masters celebration at the house in Augusta where Reed once lived.
In a generation past, one that for many of us only seems like a week ago, those stories might have been written eventually, but in today’s TMZ world where Twitter forms our opinions even before we’ve had a time to internalize what they really mean, stories emerge more quickly and fully formed than ever before. That’s new for golf, but it’s not new, said Joe Favorito, a professor in strategic communications in Columbia’s school of sports management.
“I think anyone in the limelight is viewed with feet of clay these days,” said Favorito, a consultant in crisis communications who in the past has directed communications for the Women’s Tennis Association, the U.S. Tennis Association, the New York Knicks. “You can go through every sport, every political campaign, every person in the media. It’s just much easier to attack because the negative sells more than the positive.”
Indeed, instead of celebrating Reed as that most American of archetypes, the underdog, we fell over ourselves to show him as the mongrel. Every third click online showed us the yappy rescue mutt of a man with the family dynamic straight out of an unfinished Tennessee Williams’ play.
For almost as long as there have been champions in golf, there have been the winners we wanted and liked, and the ones that at best filled the gaps between the heroes. But it has never been the case when such a winner has been almost equally celebrated and denuded the way Reed was in the afterglow of his remarkable victory. In the post Tiger Woods’ era, our major champions have largely been of a kind, almost treacly sweet, shiny or scruffy but always in the right way. Movie stars all of them, albeit in different film genres. Now, we have Reed who seemingly can only be a soap opera we’re only too happy to gossip about.
Of course, the reason is that Reed’s inconvenient story carries with it the heavy patina of being not only mostly true but previously well-documented. The simple fact is it can’t be covered up with one size 44 green three-button blazer.
“Our history follows us more publicly than it used to,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Culver noted that maybe two decades ago if Reed’s final round had been marred by a scoring discrepancy or lost-ball kerfuffle, the stories of his past might have surfaced briefly and merely as footnotes. But today those stories face boldly forward in the midst of an essentially flawless performance.
Still, Reed’s past did happen, and very publicly.
“The public has a right to know when there are controversies, where those controversies come from,” Culver said, noting it would be tough to justify any story about Reed that didn’t talk about his family being escorted off the grounds at the U.S. Open at the request of his wife.
“To the extent that they’re doing a story about public reaction to his victory, it’s important to explain where that reaction comes from. It’s not as if they’re scraping old divorce records or some old juvenile case that are unrelated. We’re talking about family matters that played out on the scene of the sport itself.”
But unlike John Daly of a generation ago, where the confluence of his beer bottle past with his champagne glass victory toasts struck us as almost endearing, Reed’s chord rings with a harsher tone. This one has an edge to it that cuts deeper.
Culver heard the groans in her own household as Reed won the title over the more popular Rory McIlroy, Spieth and Rickie Fowler.
“That’s a really interesting conversation that we need to have about sports in this society,” she said. “How much are we celebrating the athleticism and skill and strategy, and how much are we celebrating a squeaky clean image that puts you on a commercial or a Wheaties box?”
Of course, Favorito wonders if that image ever was accurate, that all those perfect champions of the past may have as much Reed in them as they have Spieth: “I imagine if you went back and put other Masters champions from different eras in the crucible that today’s young players are in that they may not have pristine stories around them either.”
But Favorito also thinks Reed may be more of what golf needs, even if it’s not what the tastemakers necessarily want. These uncomfortable Reed stories fuel a fire that might be productive.
“Golf needs to grow and needs to expand its fan base,” he said. “For better or worse, one of things that drives interest are heroes and villains. The story arcs in sports are the things that drive interest. You want people to root for and you want people to root against.
"Rivalries are very good for sports. If this is going to create a rivalry among all those young guys, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the sport.”
That decision to cast one athlete in a certain light maybe allows a dangerous freedom in sportswriters to emphasize one aspect and overlook another, especially now when social media is fomenting at full throat.
“How quickly we go down that road is one of the biggest concerns we have in journalism ethics today,” Culver said, speaking of the get-it-first stress of the up-to-the-minute news cycle. “It’s not as if people set out to do their jobs without integrity. Most people try to be ethical in their work. But there are these countervailing forces and speed is one of them and competition is one of them.”
Reed’s past problems make for good copy now. They were revealing portraits of a family at once celebrating and tortured by a lost son’s victory. But dysfunctional families and boys behaving badly aren’t the exclusive domain of golf or even professional athletes in general. We’ve all got our baggage. As storytellers, there’s something larger in play.
“There could be a truly justifiable way to tell this story of estrangement in a way that’s valuable,” Culver said. “It’s not just reporting the story so that everyone can ogle the difficult family life that Patrick Reed faces, but maybe in a way they can relate to their own difficult family life.
“To the extent that we can cover things with depth and empathy and care, those stories can have a good effect, not just sort of that leering look kind of effect.”
Of course, the biggest player in what will turn out to be the rest of Reed’s story is Reed himself. He likes wearing the black hat, and as much as he talks about “Team Reed,” its roster is not really expanding. With the wolves now at Reed’s door, he and his team are so far keeping them at bay. But that’s a lot of self to shield. Right now, it seems easy to simply not answer questions about your past like he did on Sunday at the Masters, to even stipulate what questions won’t be answered before granting an interview (as he has done) or simply abruptly canceling a media event on his Masters media tour (also done).
“He embraces that confrontational role now at 27, but maybe that will change,” Favorito said. “Lots of athletes and celebrities kind of become benevolent dictators when they get to their 30s.
“If he chooses to not let anybody in and it’s an us-against-them thing that’s worked for him, that’s his choice. Life might be a little bit easier if he were a little more open and maybe played the game a little bit. It certainly makes you a little more marketable if you do choose to do those things.”
This week’s media tour saw no Norah O’Donnell or Jimmy Fallon or Kelly Ripa or even Chris Rock courtside at the Knicks game asking Reed the hard questions. Probably wouldn’t even matter if they did. Reed will just stare straight ahead and say, “I’m just going to do me.”
But as Reed is finding out this week, that’s not going to prevent the media from doing something else, maybe something he doesn’t right now think he wants done. As Culver says, “The ‘No’ from one side can’t always be the veto. You can’t spike the story because someone refuses to talk to you about it. That would be silencing the people who said ‘Yes.’”